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A rising star who is thoroughly composed

Helen Grime is often described as being one of Scotland’s composers to watch, labelled bright, aspiring and promising.

In truth, the young 28-year-old composer has moved on beyond these assessments.

Tonight she’ll be at the Royal Festival Hall in London where there will be a focus concert in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Music of Today series.

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Grime’s music will be the focus and the repertoire will feature the UK premiere of a Clarinet Concerto for solo clarinet and ensemble of 11 instruments which she wrote for the Tanglewood Music Festival last summer. Tonight’s programme in London will also unveil a new Grime composition for violin and viola.

Then at the weekend she’s off to the Wigmore Hall to hear the CBSO’s elite contemporary music group play her work A Cold Spring, written for the Aldeburgh Festival last summer, which will then travel to the CBSO Centre in Birmingham for a further performance on Monday 25th.

From there she will head for Scotland where the Hebrides Ensemble will play her string sextet from 2007, titled Into the Faded Air, in the second of their new Rush Hour mini-series at St George’s West Church in Edinburgh a week tomorrow. And a month later she’ll be doing a quick turnaround from her base in London to get back to Scotland again for the world premiere and touring performances of her latest commission, untitled at the time we spoke last week, which will be unveiled by the Hebrides Ensemble in Helensburgh on March 10.

Suddenly the notion of Helen Grime as a “promising young composer” seems out of date.

And when you learn that her music was featured in the London Proms last year, that she has a major commission from a Scottish orchestra for the end of this year (not yet announced) and will be popping over to Paris in May to hear her orchestral work Virga played in the Salle Pleyel by the Orchestre de Paris under the baton of the legendary giant of modern music, Pierre Boulez, it’s perhaps time to shelve such descriptions of Helen Grime.

Though we haven’t met, she does seem on the phone a cool, laid back and unflappable character. Shortly before our interview her computer had gone into total meltdown, with files corrupted and lost irretrievably. And, as it headed into Dante-esque digital oblivion, the infernal machine dragged with it key elements of Grime’s work, including instrumental parts for her Hebrides commission for the March tour, with a fast-approaching deadline. About three days’ work, she estimated, went to Hell on a one-way trip.

Though she admitted feeling “really bad” about the loss, clearly, she just got her feet back on the ground, her head back into her handwritten notes, and set about re-creating the music, note by note as necessary.

And in that new piece there will be no shortage of notes. Grime writes fast, virtuosic music: “I like to use ­everything I’ve got.” She likes mixing and pairing her instrumental ­resources in often unusual combinations, and sending them off to extremes of register. That said, there is a strong lyrical strand in her music which was very clear in her early Oboe Concerto. Commissioned by Peter Evans for his indefatigable Meadows Chamber Orchestra, the magnetic concerto featured as soloist in its premiere Helen Grime herself, no mean oboist, weaving a spell of intense lyricism through the piece.

The new work she has written (and is rewriting) for the Hebrides ­Ensemble’s March tour will be a companion to the central work on the programme, a rare performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s groundbreaking expressionist monodrama, Pierrot Lunaire of 1912, for a speaking/singing actress, instrumental ensemble, and a style of vocal writing called Sprechgesang (speech-song) which had never been heard before, scared the hell out of its early listeners and proved to have a profound influence on vocal writing throughout the 20th century.

“The idea for the commission was that it is supposed to have some sort of link with the Schoenberg or with the Commedia dell’arte character of Pierrot.”

And it was Pierrot on whom Grime fastened her compositional attention. She chose some of Albert Giraud’s Pierrot poems which Schoenberg did not use in his music theatre piece as the starting point to fire her own imagination; and the subject of her musical exploration was the character of Pierrot himself.

“He’s a sad figure, always pining after Columbine. But he has another side. The poetry is violent: one of the poems is called Suicide, and Pierrot is always murdering people. There’s a lot of violence. But also he’s got this playful, comedic side. So he’s multi-faceted, something I wanted to bring through in the music.”

It’s a short piece, just 10 minutes, but Grime has packed it. There are seven short movements, reflecting the symbolism of the number seven that permeates the structure of Schoenberg’s work. Some of Grime’s seven movements are very short – as terse as 20 seconds – but she reckons that much can be achieved in such an apparently limited time frame.

“So it’s just 10 minutes; I think you can fit a whole world into just that time, and pack a lot of action into a small space. Volatile? Yeah. It’s ­neither narrative nor programmatic. It’s very highly characterised ­instrumental-theatrical music, even though we don’t have either the poetry or the singer. The poems and their themes, including the moon and blood, are just the starting point.”

And what is Helen Grime’s own starting point? She has been referred to as Edinburgh-born. Not so. She was born in York, though her parents moved to Scotland when she was a baby. Early life was in Ellon, and the musical roots in her family run deep into the north-east: no real coincidence that her recent piece for the Kungsbacka Piano Trio was played in the Sound Festival, the north-east’s festival of modern music.

Both of Grime’s grandparents were music teachers in Macduff. Her mother is a music teacher in St Margaret’s School in Edinburgh. Her ­sister Frances is a freelance violinist working in the London area.

Helen herself went to the City of Edinburgh Music School at eight or nine, then on to St Mary’s Music School at around 17, and on to the Royal College of Music in London.

Her first lessons in composition were from composers based in ­Scotland, including Sally Beamish, Haflidi Hallgrimsson and Jennifer Martin. Seeds were sown, nurtured through projects offered by Ecat (the Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust), and blossoming through the support and commissioning of her Oboe ­Concerto of 2003 by Peter Evans. And the rest is becoming history. Helen Grime: a girl, clearly, who is not only going places, but is there already.

Grime: Into the Faded Air, St George’s West Church, Shandwick Place, Edinburgh, Thursday January 28, 6pm.

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